ARTICLES

I run a hotel-heaven help me

GARNER A. HAVERS May 21 1960
ARTICLES

I run a hotel-heaven help me

GARNER A. HAVERS May 21 1960

I run a hotel-heaven help me

GARNER A. HAVERS

Robert Thomas Allen

My job’s convincing 1200 people a day that home was never like this. Believe me, it never was

I HAVE MANAGED just about every type of hotel from the stately old King Edward in Toronto to a hotel colony in the West Indies, including the Welland House in St. Catharines, Ont., the Royal Connaught in Hamilton, and the Hotel Des Pays-Bas in Utrecht, Holland. For the past four years I've managed the second biggest hotel in Montreal — The Sheraton-Mt. Royal. It's taken me twenty-five years to learn what 1 know of the hotel business, but 1 still get the feeling that most people picture a hotel manager as an imperturbable, affable, rather befuddled fellow in an Oxford-grey suit and pearl-grey tic, sitting behind a clean desk manicuring his nails, wishing someone would drop in to break the boredom.

They're right about the suit, tie and clean finger nails, but there are a few details that keep me from being bored: for instance, a staff of a thousand, including a hundred and thirty Orientals who operate my Kon Tiki restaurant; twenty-five heads of departments reporting to me; a daily average of twelve hundred guests; a building with a thousand rooms; and a plant with such machinery as laundry equipment that will launder twenty-five thousand pieces of linen per hour,

and a dishwasher that will wash eighteen thousand dishes an hour. I have to be a diplomat and a psychologist, and know something about royal protocol. I have to know the titles of visiting authors’ books and the parties of visiting politicians. And 1 have to budget backward and forward for a multimillion-dollar operation.

It's also part of my job to know good food, good wine, good cigars, good jokes, and how to avoid the 999 ways of making bad coffee. It's my problem to provide guests with their toast just the way they like it, in colors ranging from beige to black, at a time of day when a lot of guests don't even like their wives. Here at the Shcraton-Mt. Royal we do this by giving guests their own toasters, in the restaurants or in the rooms. 1 have to know where to order beef; when the best tomato crop will come in; and how to pry loose a little boy who is holding up an elevator by pressing all the buttons from the royal suite to the boiler room. And do it without offending his mother. I have to know how to get a towel out of a traveler's bag without shattering the illusion that we both think someone else put it there. I must listen

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without looking shocked. I have to say “No,” without looking like a prude, and do it all while knowing where to put my hands on 6,360 bread-and-butter plates, three thousand coffee cups, seventy-two hundred salt-and-pepper shakers,

ten thousand new keys a year. I need a supply of Japanese fish floats, water chestnuts, sesame oil, bamboo shoots, lichi nuts, coconut milk and passion-fruit juice. 1 have to deal with the details of baking fourteen kinds of bread and three

kinds of rolls every day and the problems of a “back-of-the-house” population of butchers, bakers, seamstresses, machinists, carpenters, plasterers, locksmiths, painters, plumbers, paper bailers, printers, and a core of dedicated workers with the temperaments of prima ballerinas.

I have sensitive salad men and sauce chefs who are ready to fight duels. I've had a chef sit in my office with tears pouring down his cheeks because I told him to fire one of his cooks.

“Please don’t ask me to do it!” he sobbed.

“Pull yourself together, 'Man,” I said sternly. “Trust me. It’s best for all of us.”

It sounded like an episode from Love of Life.

My present catering manager, who comes from Sheppard’s Hotel in Cairo, has served the Aga Khan, King Farouk, Prince Rainier, Marshal Tito. Queen Wilhelmina, Princess Margaret, King George VI, Queen Mary and Winston Churchill, and it's all I can do not to salute him when he comes into my office.

I have a service-elevator operator in the back of the hotel who is so proud of his elevator that I always make a point of riding his car on the tour of the hotel I make every forty-eight hours. I inspect his car. We practically give one another the order of the garter. He has his elevator painted white like a royal coach.

And out in front I have 1,200 guests who are fundamentally decent and appreciative, often impatient, inclined to be rough on furniture and to lock their cars in front of my entrance tying up a block of traffic. Then they get indignant when they’re told we’re sorry but they can’t do that. They slyly bring in heavy cruisers as their nieces and think if they get past me they’re home free, naively overlooking a battery of housekeepers, bus boys, housemen, chambermaids and miscellaneous seasoned hotel workers who can recognize a re-treaded niece the length of a ballroom. They get huffy when they forget their keys and the maids, following a rigid rule for the guests’ own protection, won’t open the doors for them.

We’ve had, as guests, Queen Elizabeth, President Roosevelt, Mrs. Roosevelt, all Canada’s governors - general, Mexican presidents and a big-tipping Count de la Valentino who turned out to have knocked off a bank in Chicago. On an ordinary day, though, when my staff lines up for inspection of fingernails, supply of matches, signs of forbidden mustaches or duck-tail haircuts, and a quick briefing in politeness, it’s to offer service to average hotel guests—people who are away from their homes, wives and neighbors— on the town, tight, happy, sad, excited, broke, scared, lonely, falling in love, falling out of love, falling out of bed.

One night recently our security police had to saw through a chain lock to wake a lonely traveler who was hollering “Help!” in his sleep so loudly he broke up a party in the next room. He happened to be reasonable about it. Most of the people we have to wake up, after fifteen minutes of telephoning them, ask us what kind of a joint this is where a man can’t get a decent night’s sleep. Occasionally I’m tempted to instruct my security men to say, “Yes, sir. We didn’t want to let you die. Sorry, sir.”

When I have people in for dinner, 1 have fifteen hundred at a time, and sometimes every one is a Shriner equipped with a whoopee ball and squirt gun. The last time they brought their own motor scooters to race up and down the corridors. At that they’re not as bad as the university kids during a big football game. We know what the Shriners are going to do. They’ve been doing the same things for years. We’ve developed a mellow, proprietory feeling toward their jokes. But university kids, suddenly let loose from memorizing the names of the Greek philosophers, have a lot of new ideas and a propensity for getting primed on a pint of Molson's. They don’t want to go to bed. We have to be reasonably tolerant of harmless horseplay up to 1 a.m., but they wander around all night in bed sheets serenading elderly spinsters, who phone me. I don’t blame them.

When guests let me down, they do it wholesale. It’s common in one night for

a hundred people who reserved rooms not to show up. We have to operate close to full occupancy to stay in business, and work to a mathematical formula to come as close as possible to accommodating everyone, including guests who ask to stay in their rooms longer than they expected. It sometimes means that a guest has to wait half an hour to get into a room he reserved, and he wonders how hotel managers can get so mixed up.

During a convention I have as many as two thousand people arrive in twenty minutes, in addition to the regular guests. Often, fifteen minutes before the guests arrive, somebody phones to say there has been a slight change in plans—there’ll be two hundred more guests than he figured on. Within fifteen minutes 1 have to phone our banquet manager, alert the staff, arrange for more tables, move the banquet into another room, forewarn all service personnel and an army of employees right down to the fry-station chef, roast-station chef, sauce-station chef, fry cooks, roast cooks, sauce cooks, and the boy who changes the bulletin boards. I also have to be waiting for the first guest as if nothing had happened, ready to exchange nudges and listen to a joke I heard at the last banquet, my fingers crossed behind my back hoping no little detail will go wrong, l.ike the time the whole head table collapsed on the knees of the guests of honor at a publicrelations banquet.

They twist silver into pretzels

Next day the man who sprang the extra guests on me sometimes phones and says I charged too much for the drinks. The average liquor consumption for a mixed group is three drinks per person. In a group of men. the average is slightly higher. In some groups, everything is higher. A while ago after a party of fifty in one of our function rooms, the organizer phoned and complained that he'd been excessively charged for liquor. I found out that he not only didn't drink himself, but he hadn't been at the party. Some of the guests drank right through the speeches, and three had to be carried out before they got up and started to make speeches themselves. I couldn’t tell him this, of course. All 1 could say was that his average was high.

We take a parental attitude toward guests who have had too much to drink and occasionally get what a lot of parents get, like the other day when a musician we were urging to go upstairs and have a sleep, whacked our assistant manager over the head with a trumpet. But usually our concern is appreciated, and sometimes rewarded with a bit of comedy. 1 still remember a well-spoken drunk who wandered into the hotel colony I managed on a Caribbean beach and bothered the guests so much I had to throw him out the front entrance. He was back in about thirty seconds. "I say, old boy," he said, "would you mind throwing me out the other door? I came by way of the beach."

When 1 have guests in for dinner, they do things they don't do when they're at your place for dinner. They twist my best silverware into pretzels, for one thing. And my guests write on my table cloths; in recent years they've been doing it with ball-point pens. A while ago a businessman phoned me frantically to tell me to hold up my whole laundry system till he came to the hotel and picked out a tablecloth he'd been doing some figuring on. He said they were very important figures. We managed to find the cloth.

I get phone calls that make me take the phone from my ear and look at the

receiver to make sure it’s working. Guests I’ve never heard of before phone me and say, “Hi, Garney, old boy, I’ll be there in an hour. Fix me up with the same you gave me last year, will you?” and hang up leaving me feeling like a victim of amnesia. Mothers call me before football games and say, “Take good care of Jane. It’s her first time away from home.”

Due to some peculiar shy streak in some married men, when the room clerk asks them if they want a single or a double bed, they look around the lobby with elaborate boredom and say, “It’s up to you.” They won’t give a straight answer. Then when they go up to their rooms and find twin beds they phone me and yell, “What the hell are you people trying to do, break up my marriage?” We have to move them into other rooms. The only one’s we’re sure of are the newlyweds. As soon as we see those new bags, new clothes and new looks we just give them a double.

When I unwittingly offend a guest, he doesn’t just bid me a cool “goodnight” and go home. He often starts to take my hotel apart. I’ve sat in my office and, hardly believing my eyes, watched the furniture from one of my rooms falling past my window. I high-tailed it upstairs and found that it was being tossed out by a millionaire who thought I’d deliberately given him a noisy room on his honeymoon.

They leave champagne behind

Another time, I had an otherwise quiet, co-operative, permanent guest, who, every six months, would begin to feel lonely and neglected and start thinking up ways to get attention. One time he long-distanced the president of the Sheraton Corporation to tell him that he couldn’t find me. Another time, for no other reason that we could figure out than that he wanted some notice, he took his television set apart, put all the parts out in my corridor, neatly arranging everything from oscillator to rectifier on the hall rug. He phoned the office to say someone had wrecked it. When I got him into my office, looked him in the eye and told him I knew gremlins hadn’t done it, he grinned sheepishly and said, “Okay, send me the bill.”

Another thing that keeps me from getting bored, is trying to outfox guests who are trying to carry my hotel away, piece by piece. Honest, law-abiding citizens steal my bath mats, towels, ash trays, blankets, shower curtains and drapes, without batting an eye. Sometimes we stop a guest and tell him we understand a bath mat got into his bag without his knowing it and we all smile and apologize. One time when I was staying overnight with friends, my hostess very thoughtfully brought me a blanket with the name of my hotel on it. I came down to breakfast next morning with it draped around my shoulders, monogram out, figuring I had her nailed to the mast. All she did was say somebody else had left it there and asked me how I’d have my eggs.

On the other hand, if a guest goes to some joint and gets rolled for his wallet, he says I took it, or someone I have heisting things for me, in spite of the fact that I have a stockroom the size of a cigar store filled to the ceiling with the things one out of every five guests leaves at the hotel. Right now, I have ten pairs of shoes, a case of champagne, three cases of liquor, an umbrella, a dozen hats, a teddy bear, an opera hat, an electric razor, a set of false teeth, a baby

buggy, a clock, a fully loaded piece of luggage, a rack full of coats, dressing gowns, and a Mennonite's hat. The last person who dropped into my office looked as if he were not only going to break the monotony of my job, but break my neck. He said one of my maids lifted his wallet. Was he sure it had been stolen? Had he seen her steal it?

“Look, Mac, are you calling me a liar? It was lying on my dresser when I went out.”

The next afternoon a cab driver turned it in. The passenger had left it in the cab on his way back from a bistro. The guest sent me what must have been one of the toughest letters he’d ever had to write—a letter of apology.

One of my oldest friends is the general sales manager of a big corporation who arrived like a raging bull one night at a hotel I managed demanding to see me and giving loud and lurid descriptions of what he thought of the hotel, what his wife thought of the hotel, and what his kids thought of the hotel. I let him talk, bought him a drink, gave him a cigar, shook my head sympathetically and said: “Boy! Have you got troubles!” A couple of hours later I was having lunch with him and his wife. Both of them came back three times in the next fifteen months.

Which is one of the things I like about the hotel business. I get some nice letters and make a lot of friends. In the meantime I go on coping with the daily business of running a hotel, and never running short of problems. Last week a woman walking past the Sheraton-Mt. Royal was hit on the back by a turkey that was tossed out of a street-level window by a kitchen employee who thought his accomplice was standing out there. I have someone in my kitchen now who, when he gets a piece of bent silverware back from the dining room, evidently starts chuckling and closes a door on it to give it more character. One elevator operator I had to fire, for annoying guests by telling them what suckers they were for choosing the Sheraton - Mt. Royal, is writing letters to the corporation full of sardonic expressions like “Ha!” I've had my quota of poor credit risks running up big accounts, making a lot of long-distance calls, and adding large tips to their meal checks, which they don’t intend to pay anyway. One humid day I had a thousand doors all sticking at the same time.

But everything goes along pretty smoothly. My staff keep a thousand rooms spie and span and provided with shoe cleaners, soap, wash cloths, post cards, envelopes and air-mail stickers; keep in repair a thousand sinks, wash tubs, toilets and three thousand taps. I have an expert doing nothing but picking out bent silverware and repairing or replacing it. A while ago my day was brightened by a man who checked in on our family plan, under which there’s no charge for children under fourteen. He asked for accommodation for his wife and seventeen children all under twelve, including seven sets of twins. “We don’t want to be separated,” he said. We fixed him up with ten cots in a salesmen's sample room.

I had to tell one insistent guest that we didn’t provide harem service. It was an unusual request and far removed from the demands of the average guest, who is just an ordinary person away from home, sometimes living it up a bit, usually asking for a lot of service but grateful when he gets it. A much more typical guest was the one I got a letter from yesterday. It read: "Dear sir: We really appreciate your lovely towels. Thank you again. Satisfied guest.” ★